Holly Macdonald
Written by:

Holly Macdonald


March 27, 2020

Free 40 point cheat sheet to developing online learningThere’s a lot of boring e-learning out there. If you’ve been guilty of this in the past you have no excuses now. Start by creating better e-learning activities.

In our article, “The Dummies Guide to Developing Online Learning” we listed several e-learning activities. Now, we provide successful online activities for self-paced e-learning. Ones that will elevate the quality of your online course. While also greatly improving knowledge transfer to the learner. By focusing on activities where the learner is thinking about their choices, you’ll create e-learning activities that don’t suck!

Avoid the “Info Dump”

A common flaw in creating an e-learning module is to use a lacklustre outline to structure a course.  For example,

  • Share learning objectives
  • Provide content
  • Insert a multiple-choice quiz
  • Pass/Fail
  • End

Cathy Moore called it the Info Dump. Creating an info dump does 2 things. Firstly, it insults the learner. Secondly, it misses the opportunity to use the e-learning software to develop good learning. Instead how about using fun, interactive, and engaging learning activities?

Embrace Quizzes + Knowledge Checks in your E-learning Activities

Instead of falling into the “Info Dump” trap, one idea is to present the “course” so that it centers around small but frequent quizzes. While training usually includes some form of a quiz, multiple-choice questions are used far too often. If you want to offer something engaging, then embrace quizzing as an instructional strategy.

For example, you could incorporate one or more of the following e-learning activities to test for understanding in your course.

Prove You Don’t Need This Course!

Instead of forcing someone who understands the topic well to go through the entire course, why not quiz them at the beginning? First set up a challenge. For example, imagine you have a course on privacy requirements in the organization. Often this needs to be completed on an annual basis. So, employees who have successfully taken the course in previous years could take a test to confirm they still recall the information. If they are successful then they can skip taking the course.

This works well for compliance training, where the audience has to renew their certification. Your learner will thank you for it. And, as a bonus, you can use feedback to reinforce their existing knowledge through the quiz. For example, in our privacy course example, you could have a summary screen that highlights key areas where they can learn more. Or as they answer each question they receive extra information. For instance, a common topic in privacy modules is protecting information. One way we’ve done this is to show them a desk with a variety of items on it. Then they are asked to click on all things that should be locked up when leaving their desk. After they submit their answer, a reminder of the policy is summarized for them.

Actual Real-Life Practice

A great way to test understanding is Example of a real life e-learning activity to fill in a software formto create situations and online activities so people practice in real-life conditions. For example, filing out a form on a software application. Hints can be included along the way as well.

In the example on the right the learner is asked to complete fields using the software application.



E-learning training to complete fields in a software application

When they click “Ask for help” on the white board they are given 3 options to choose get a hint, to have it done for them, or to go back and try again.

Completing the form is an essential part of the course. So, built into the quiz are points assigned for each field.



Score after completing an e-learning activity

If the learner accesses a hint then that will reduce their points.  If they have it done for them they receive no points.  In the example on the right you can see that the ultimate outcome for this learner was successful, however they didn’t get full marks because they used a hint.  Thus, they only choose the hint if they feel they need it.

This course example shown on the right was an award-winning Articulate Storyline course in 2012 by Tim Buteyn.


Another example is a course where you have to measure something.  

TAB storage solution e-learning activityWe utilized this in a course for TAB. The course was on storage solutions and an important aspect was to calculate the weight of full shelves. The learner was given the product specifications and room measurements and had to perform the calculation.  In this example, individuals enter the # of units required and have 2 chances to get it right. We could have removed the information in the red box and used it as a hint.

Use Branched Scenarios as a Quiz

Branched scenarios are situations where there are multiple outcomes for an action. Each time you are given a choice or a path. Then your choice takes you down a different path. Think of them like a “choose your own adventure” structure. A rudimentary example of a branched scenario is shown here.

The value of using branched scenarios as one of your e-learning activities is you are testing for knowledge along the way. But the learner doesn’t usually realize they are taking a quiz. As well, you are also providing extra instruction as they work through the scenario. This is much more engaging than a basic multiple-choice quiz since it is interactive.

Solve A Mystery, Challenge, or Quest

Why not include a mystery, challenge, or quest as one of your e-learning activities? It not only promotes learning, and tests knowledge, but is engaging as well. Best of all, it isn’t difficult to create.

For instance, to test someone’s comprehension of a process, you can present them with some common situations. Then ask them what they would do. Instead of telling them if they have the correct answer, you show them what the impact of their behaviour is.

Include a Puzzle

Adding a puzzle to your course can be a very helpful mental model for the learner. By showing the parts of your course as individual puzzle pieces it allows the learner to see how it all fits together in the big picture. As well, you can engage the learner further by having them put the puzzle pieces together.

Puzzle pieces as an example of a learning activity

Video Quizzes

Using a video and making it interactive provides another way to test for knowledge. As well, e-learning activities of this type engage the learner without them feeling the burden of having to take a quiz. By showing a video, and pausing partway through you can present the learner with a choice of options. Selecting the correct option resumes the video. An incorrect selection enables more training and feedback on a specific topic. When a correct selection is made, the video begins again.

Interactive videos are often used in situations to teach special techniques. Such as in medical training or cooking. Or where following a procedure has a high risk associated with it. For instance, screening bags in an airport or repairing heavy machinery.

Consider training for fire-fighters or emergency responders. You could present them with a burning room and as they enter the room, you pause the video. And then, ask them what to do first. When they get that right the video continues and they get the next challenge. As they progress through the video, they are scored on responses.

Multiple-Choice Questions

Too often multiple-choice quizzes are the default test for understanding of a topic. However, if used in the right way, they can be a useful e-learning activity. Indeed, well written multiple-choice questions can simulate performance. Patti Shank in her article on the Best Way To Write Multiple-Choice Questions discusses the 5 major flaws in writing the questions:

  1. Unclear or otherwise poorly written
  2. Too easy to guess
  3. Test recall of content not use of knowledge
  4. Don’t measure what they intend to measure.
  5. Typically testing something else, rather than evaluating to see if the test taker knows the content

Similarly, Connie Malamed in her article 10 Rules For Writing Multiple Choice Questions, and Justin Ferriman in his article Tips for Writing Smarter E-Learning Quizzes both provide practical and useful guidelines to improve the use of multiple-choice quizzes. If you want to get into the details of Writing Good Multiple Choice Test Questions then this Vanderbilt University article provides lots of information.

Experiment with Scenarios

While we already discussed scenarios as an alternative to multiple-choice quizzing, there are other ways scenarios can be used in e-learning activities. Great e-learning can be developed using situational decision-making or scenarios. Usually, a scenario gives the person taking the course a range of ways to respond. And covers all four of the criteria for creating good e-learning (Dr. Will Thalheimer’s research) which we shared in our Dummies Guide To Developing Online Learning. It

  • provides an opportunity to recall a practice,
  • provides learners with realistic decision making and authentic tasks to practice,
  • offers feedback on the e-learning activities, and
  • includes spaced repetition of these activities over time

Scenarios can be a single path that provides feedback and extra information. Or they can be detailed branched scenarios that provide a range of options to challenge the learner. An example of the structure of a complex branched scenario is shown in the graphic below from Christy Tucker.

a complex branched scenario for a learning activity

Branched scenarios are often used in complex types of courses. They could be narrated or presented as a series of small vignettes. For example, let’s imagine you are taking a course on minimizing your carbon footprint. The choices are to

  • eat less meat,
  • get rid of your car, or
  • change your holiday habits to avoid air travel.

Each of these leads to a series of choices where you can provide more instruction about the choice made. For instance, selecting less meat might present you with options such as

  • eat only vegan food,
  • eat meatless once a week, or
  • to reduce meat consumption by 50%.

Then if you chose the vegan option you could be presented with another set of choices about your decision to go vegan.

Similarly, if you chose to get rid of your car, then your next set of choices might be

  • ride-sharing,
  • get an electric bike, or
  • use public transit.

Using branched scenarios as e-learning activities is a little more complex and usually requires the professional help of an instructional designer. However, the following are a list of resources you may find useful if you are doing it yourself.

4-step process for writing scenarios for training by Cathy Moore

Building Scenarios for E-Learning by Tom Kuhlman

e-learning Scenario Formula by Anna Sabramowicz

Branch and Bottleneck Scenario Structure by Christy Tucker

Two tools to consider using to map out your branches are Twine and Yo Scenario. Both are for more advanced e-learning practitioners.

E-learning Activities that Include Instructional Games

Games can be perceived as frivolous. But, there are powerful elements of games that are very effective in building online learning. And games help to engage your audience and provide instant feedback. Used as an e-learning activity your game could be timed to imitate a time-critical task. Or it could be a scavenger hunt to find hidden clues or elements of something. As well, e-learning activities could include a spot the difference game, or an activity where points are collected before progressing to the next level.

While your imagination may be the only limit on what game you design, it must be realistic. And that it provides decision-making activities and feedback to the learner. Avoid novelty gamification for the sake of it. You (and your learner) are better off if the game is realistic and meets the rules for great elearning.

A great resource is the book Game Thinking by Amy Jo Kim. This book is especially helpful for customer education.

“The best products don’t just fill a need. They help people get better at something they care about”.

For example, a client that sells a certification program to their users. It’s often purchased to help the user be more efficient with their software. But also it can increase their overall employability and future career options. The “product” helps people improve their job security.

Using game thinking helps to shape their learning path so that it appeals to their internal motivation. Using these design techniques for users gives a structure to their experience. And it encourages them to use the product.

Some interesting resources on how to incorporate games into your online learning are the following:

Gamification Resources for Course Creators by Karl KappFree 40 point cheat sheet to developing online learning

Ultimate Design Guide to eLearning Gamification in 2019 by Racoon Gang

6 Killer Examples Of Gamification In eLearning by Asha Pandey

Use Simulations In Your E-Learning Activities

Simulations are must have e-learning activities for certain types of training on high-risk topics. For example, to create immersive experiences for emergency responders, pilots, and clinicians. As well, simulations make good activities for software related training.

Whenever you put the learner in a situation that simulates their real job, you are increasing their opportunity to practice. This then increases the transfer of the learning to the job or task. The more sensory the simulation, the better. As an example, flight simulators have been used for decades for pilot training.

While most of us won’t be going to the effort and expense of creating a flight simulator, more affordable options exist. For example, the rise of virtual and augmented reality opens up a lot of options for e-learning. The trick is to match the opportunity to practice, with the appropriate technology. And to do it when it makes sense. For instance, if you need to practice something high-risk then virtual reality is a good option. This is because the real situation is dangerous or expensive to simulate.

Alternatively, if you need to add extra information to a practical task, such as identifying machine parts or items in a surgical room, then augmented reality would be more appropriate. Using augmented reality you can add extra information in the field of view. In the instance of a vet clinic where the staff have to set up for a surgical procedure, the equipment must be placed in the correct place.

This video shares an example of how one of our clients Librestream uses augmented reality for remote inspections, training and auditing.


Expensive, high risk, and difficult to replicate situations, lend themselves to using mixed reality. Yet, depending on the learning goal, you might be able to use interactive video instead.

Interactive Video

Video can be a powerful medium and is often used in online courses.  But it’s not a magic bullet when it comes to creating great e-learning activities.

“While employees prefer video as a method of learning, that doesn’t mean they’re always paying attention. 72% of employees admit that they do not give training videos their full attention, skimming them, watching without sound, listening while doing something else, or ignoring them completely.”   Kaltura’s 2019 State of Video in the Enterprise Survey

Video is a passive medium, but instructional designers have a secret weapon. By utilizing specials tools, videos can be made to be interactive. An overlay added on top of the video file communicates to the viewer. This can form enhancements to the video, or give the viewer control of the video based on their activity. For example, if the learner needs to make a decision at a certain point in the video, we can add a button or link, to jump to another point in the video. As well, it can be used to link the learner to external resources they can access. Or enable them to provide feedback, such as filling out a form. In such instances, you can track their understanding at a precise point of the video.

Many types of overlays can be added to a video to make it an interactive e-learning activity. Examples include,

  • Buttons to choose options or make decisions
  • Text/images to reinforce (paused video)
  • Buttons to download relevant contextual information
  • Semi-transparent coloured tints to reinforce without adding text/images/icons (no pause)
  • Survey/poll links
  • Call to action
  • Ratings
  • Quizzes
  • Forms
  • Branching scenarios
  • Closed captioning

An example of how this works is shown in this video.

Instructional Feedback

The biggest benefit of an e-learning activity is the instructional feedback that you offer. For example, your activity might be an opportunity to practice, rather than a quiz. However, providing instructional feedback to the learner is important. Luckily authoring tools often come with pre-set templates for quiz feedback. These provide a built-in framework, usually with correct/incorrect generic feedback. These can usually be customized to provide specific feedback. For example, consider the following in creating your feedback:

  • Situational feedback – provide reasons why their choice is correct/incorrect. Or what might enhance their practice activity. Your feedback should be educational and encouraging.
  • Consequences – rather than telling them they are right or wrong, show them the impact of their choice. This is especially useful for more experienced users. Novices typically need more direct right/wrong instruction.
  • Using situations where there is no right/wrong answer – This allows you to reinforce key learning points. It is more useful when you aren’t scoring or treating the activity as a quiz.
  • Cumulative feedback – Instead of only showing instructional feedback after each quiz question, gather the various feedback into a summary. This can then be shown again at the end of a series of activities.
  • Visual cues – Have different colours, icons or other ways to depict the impact of their choice.

Two useful resources for further information are “Giving Feedback in Elearning”, and 5 Powerful Ways to Improve Instructional Feedback.”

In Summary: E-learning Activities That Don’t Suck!

Free 40 point cheat sheet to developing online learningThere’s a lot of boring e-learning out there. If you’ve been guilty of this in the past you have no excuses now. Start by creating better e-learning activities using some of the examples we’ve described in this article. If you’re not sure how to start, reach out to an instructional designer  or contact us directly, we’d be happy to help.


We hope this article managed to ‘Spark Your Interest”. If you have specific questions about anything in the article, or if you have suggestions for additions or future articles please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@sparkandco.ca, 250-537-9461.